WWP The Project Newsletter Archive Volume 2, Number 3 Senses of Sexual

Senses of Sexual in the Women Writers Project Textbase

John Lavagnino and Jacque Russom

As part of the collaboration between the Women Writers Project and the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we look for usages in our textbase that are not currently recorded in the OED. This is not an organized search; instead, as we notice unusual usages, we consult the OED and sometimes find that these usages are worth reporting to the OED's editors. One example we turned up recently is the use of the term sexual, particularly in the late eighteenth century. The earliest occurrence of this word in the WWP textbase dates back to 1790, in "On the Equality of the Sexes" by Judith Sargent Murray, an essay in which Murray mentions the plight of the uneducated woman:

Is she single, she in vain seeks to fill up time from sexual employments or amusements.

By "sexual employments or amusements" Murray means those which are considered specifically appropriate for women rather than men, such as needlepoint. This sense recurs several other times in Murray's work; it also appears in Thoughts on the Condition of Women (1799) by Mary Robinson:

From such women, the majority of mankind draw their opinions of sexual imbecility... Tradition may then point out the learned Elizabeth, (with all her sexual failings) and then judge...

This sense of the term sexual is not well represented by the OED in its current edition (the second edition, published in 1989). In the OED, the principal senses are the biological senses which are most familiar today: "Of or pertaining to sex or the attribute of being either male or female; existing or predicated with regard to sex," "pertaining to sex as concerned in generation or in the processes connected with this," and "relative to the physical intercourse between the sexes or the gratification of sexual appetites." The OED sense which our quotations from Murray and Robinson best fit is "characteristic of or peculiar to the one sex or the other," as in the modern biological term "secondary sexual characteristics"; the earliest OED attestation for this sense is from 1815: "Her looks, her turns, her whole manner of speaking and acting is sexual."

The examples from our textbase not only provide earlier dates for this usage, but also suggest a revision of the OED's definition. When personal qualities or intellectual abilities, rather than biological features, are in question, sexual usually does not mean "characteristic of or peculiar to the one sex or the other"; it usually means "characteristic of women." The observation has often been made that specifically male characteristics tend not to be described as being limited to one sex, but instead are described as being the norm--and specifically female characteristics tend to be seen as deviations from this norm. That observation applies to the uses of sexual that we have looked at: when it modifies abstract qualities, it is almost always used to define those qualities as characteristically female or feminine. Though we found a few citations where the term could mean "characteristically male," in the great majority of cases the "feminine" sense is clearly intended.

Of course, one aim of the current OED revision is to correct inaccurate definitions in the light of historical evidence, and our textbase is a valuable source of data for this endeavor. For the history of women's writing, this sense of sexual is of interest as one piece of shared vocabulary in a dialogue among women writers in the late 1700s about women's faculties. Readers, we suspect, have generally understood the intended meaning of this usage in individual texts, but have probably not been aware of how widespread the usage was. Murray and Robinson were not the only writers whose works use sexual with this sense; it also appears in writings by Catharine Macaulay and Mary Hays. And Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) contains numerous instances, such as:

The attention to dress, therefore, which has been thought a sexual propensity, I think natural to mankind.

In fact, it is the argument of Wollstonecraft's text that the qualities by which men and women should measure themselves are the same; she rejects the prevailing notion of a "sexual character," i.e., a standard of female virtues and qualities that is different from those by which men are measured.

In the last twenty years, Wollstonecraft's work has again attained a wide readership, and is today much better known than the works of the other writers we have mentioned. Indeed, the OED added a quotation from Wollstonecraft to its entry for sexual in the Supplement volume issued in 1986. Unfortunately, the editors seem not to have understood what Wollstonecraft meant: they put the quotation from her work under the sense "Relative to the physical intercourse between the sexes," though it is quite clear that this is not the sense intended, and indeed, this sense is rare in Wollstonecraft. The error is perpetuated in the second edition of 1989.

One reason for the OED's error is the difficulty the lexicographers faced in coping with the explosion in use of this term in the twentieth century. The 1986 Supplement's additions are actually longer than the entry for sexual in the original OED volume from 1914, and the Supplement entry contains a headnote commenting on the problems of fitting the new evidence into the framework set up by the original OED. The suggestion was that the entry needed to be completely rewritten, but in the event this was not actually done for the second edition. Another reason for the OED's error is that Wollstonecraft's book is much concerned with moral behavior and the management of the passions, and consequently a quotation taken out of context may appear to be referring to physical intercourse rather than to the nature of women--as in the quotation used by the OED, which is the title of the seventh chapter of Wollstonecraft's book: "Modesty.--Comprehensively considered, and not as a sexual virtue."

The reference of sexual specifically to the feminine is a phenomenon that can also be seen in related words. The OED documents, with citations from the sixteenth century on, the fact that the term "the sex" specifically meant "the female sex." This usage occurs throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. An early example from the WWP textbase comes from Charlotte Lennox (The Ladies Museum, 1760--61):

It is taken for granted, that a very little instruction is sufficient for the sex; whereas the education of sons is looked upon as of principal concern to the public.

Another related term is unsexual, which occurs twice in Murray's writing (antedating the OED's 1819 citation). As she uses it, the term means "unfeminine." In arguing for the education of girls she states:

...nor, it is conceived, ought it to be considered as unsexual, if they were capacitated to render the rudiments of the Latin tongue familiar.

The OED does have an entry for unsexual, with a striking quotation from Thomas De Quincey dating to the 1830s:

An air of something unsexual, mannish, and...ludicrous.

The OED also cites De Quincey for sexual; in his use of the term, there may well have been a connection (which is not suggested by the evidence in the works of any other author we have examined) with Lady Macbeth's speech, "Unsex me here." In its definition for unsex, the OED notes once again (as with "the sex" and "unsexual") that the word most often refers to the divestment of female qualities rather than of any gender-specific qualities.

The latest instances of sexual in our textbase--from works of Lucy Aikin and Sarah Green, both published in 1810--have the modern sense referring to physical sexuality. Our textbase's coverage ends in 1830, and the OED's latest quotation for sexual with the earlier sense is from 1839, so the textbase does not provide any new evidence on how long that sense survived. But we can provide such evidence from another source: John Sloan's biography of the poet John Davidson, published by Oxford in 1995. In an essay written at some point before 1907, Davidson wrote: "the more masculine, and therefore more delicate, minds among men dislike women except in their sexual relations, as mothers, wives, lovers, sisters." In 1907, Davidson's character was attacked in the periodical Academy, which misquoted his statement as "the more masculine and less delicate among men dislike women except in their sexual relations"--omitting the enumeration of female roles and thereby twisting the word sexual from what was perhaps already an outdated sense into what is today the dominant sense.

The WWP textbase, as an electronically searchable corpus comprising a variety of genres of writing in pre-Victorian English, can be an invaluable aid to lexicography. We look forward to making full use of this resource to support the OED in revising the dates and definitions of words and in providing representative citations from texts written by women.

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